UPI Senior Editor
Washington (UPI) Sep 01, 2005
In early 2001 the Federal Emergency Management Agency listed what it believed were the three most likely disasters to face the United States in coming years. One was a terrorist attack on New York City. The second was a hurricane-spawned flood of New Orleans.
Kind of makes you want to know what the third one is, doesn't it? The third is a major earthquake in San Francisco.
The first two have come to pass in under five years. And in both cases, the post-mortems have had two main elements: How could this have been prevented, and could it have been handled better once it occurred?
The Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks that brought down the Twin Towers -- as well as hitting the Pentagon and downing a jetliner in Pennsylvania -- were the subject of the 9/11 Commission Report. That report made an overwhelming case that better coordination between government agencies would have given us a fighting chance of avoiding the attacks. And that was before the latest controversy over whether a U.S. Army unit had been tracking some of the hijackers inside the country well before Sept. 11.
The commission also pointed to confusion among first responders at the World Trade Center, which included communication systems that didn't sync.
The same dynamic is now playing out in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina breached levees in the Big Easy and swept away coastal casinos built on barges like so many sand castles.
The New Orleans paper, The Times-Picayune, wrote a prescient series three years ago laying out just the kind of problems that could ensue if the city flooded.
A predictably partisan debate is already under way about whether obvious improvements to the levee system were ignored; whether the war in Iraq siphoned off too many National Guard troops who could have responded; why thousands of residents lack food and water days after the storm is gone -- and much more.
Whatever the answers, it's a sure bet this won't be the last catastrophe -- manmade or act of God -- to visit these shores. If FEMA goes three for three in its predictions -- if the Big One rattles San Francisco -- will we be ready?
At 5:12 a.m. on April 18, 1906, the Great San Francisco Earthquake broke open the ground for 270 miles along the San Andreas Fault. Fires broke out after gas and electric lines were severed; because the water mains also were cut, there was no way to fight them.
The magnitude was estimated at a cataclysmic 7.7 to 8.2 on the Richter scale. The death toll is uncertain, but estimates ranged from 700 to 3,000.
On Oct. 17, 1989, the Loma Prieta quake centered near San Francisco measured 6.9 on the Richter scale. Much less severe, it nonetheless buckled highways and collapsed buildings in an area that is now much more densely populated.
The belief that another major quake is coming is so commonplace that it even has a nickname: The Big One, the one that will make the others look like foreshocks. Of course, Los Angeles is vulnerable, too; the U.S. Geological Survey recently estimated that the rupture of a little-known fault under that city would kill between 3,000 and 11,000 people.
Residents of both cities are better prepared for disaster than most, according to a 2003 San Francisco Chronicle article by Katherine Seligman:
"More San Franciscans kept disaster kits at home, the survey of 10 cities by the market research and consulting firm Harris Interactive found. But even here, with a population of earthquake veterans, most people still don't have disaster preparedness plans," Seligman reported.
"Los Angeles, by contrast, keeps fewer kits but is only one of three cities in which more than 50 percent of residents have evacuation plans. Forty-three percent of San Franciscans have such a plan, according to the study."
The article noted that the Red Cross was beginning a nationwide disaster-preparedness effort and that almost two-thirds of American families don't have disaster-supply kits.
The first order of business, obviously, is helping those whose lives have been swept away by Katrina. But in the long term, a renewed national and family focus on preparedness could be the best possible legacy of this tragedy.
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